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Jeremy Hunt 'has done absolutely nothing over childhood obesity report'

Published 13/10/2015

Jeremy Hunt has been accused of doing
Jeremy Hunt has been accused of doing "absolutely nothing" in response to a report on how to tackle childhood obesity

The Health Secretary has done "absolutely nothing" to respond to a report he asked for on cutting childhood obesity, a health committee has heard.

Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar and an expert in cardiovascular medicine, angrily told MPs that Jeremy Hunt would stand by his view that a "sugar tax" was a "regressive tax".

Mr Hunt is already embroiled in a row with the Commons health committee over suppressing evidence about the benefits of a "sugar tax".

Committee chairman and Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston has questioned whether political pressure has been exerted to prevent the release of a review on the issue by Public Health England (PHE).

At the start of the committee's hearing on childhood obesity on Tuesday, Dr Wollaston said: "The Committee is deeply disappointed that we have not seen publication of the detailed evidence review.

"We consider that that is obstructing this inquiry."

Prof MacGregor said a "sugar tax" will play a major role in reducing the incidence of obesity, including among children.

He said: "We were asked by Jeremy Hunt for a plan to prevent childhood obesity over a year and a half ago.

"We gave him a brief but very well-evidenced document with seven actions as to how he could prevent childhood obesity.

"Since then he has done absolutely nothing.

"In spite of going back to him 10 times, we're always fobbed off by Department of Health officials saying they are waiting for further information."

Prof MacGregor said there was evidence from Finland and Mexico that a sugar tax worked. There was also evidence that taxes on alcohol and cigarettes worked.

He told MPs: "I don't think we need any more evidence. We should put a sugar tax in straight away, particularly on soft drinks."

He said there was a need for "weapons" to make industry reformulate their drinks, adding: "We know that taxes work on alcohol and cigarette consumption, and they will work on sweetened soft drinks."

He said "we need a government who will do it" adding that the PHE report had been handled like some "i ncredible state secret".

He went on: "The regressive tax thing is just a desperate ploy by Jeremy Hunt to find something that says we should not do it."

The PHE review was originally expected to be published in July and Dr Wollaston wrote to Mr Hunt last month, asking him to reveal the findings ahead of a planned inquiry by the committee into childhood obesity.

But Mr Hunt argued that the review was "integral to ongoing policy development" and would be published later this year with a government strategy on childhood obesity.

Prof MacGregor said there should be new rules on "reformulation" of products to reduce harmful added sugar and fat, as well as a sugar tax and a ban on advertising of unhealthy food.

"That would prevent childhood obesity and adult obesity," he said. "If we did all that, we wouldn't have anybody getting obesity or getting Type 2 diabetes in the UK."

He said supermarkets were "waiting" for the Government to require them to take action to reduce sugar, which would force producers like Coca-Cola and Pepsi to follow suit.

But he said pressure from the authorities had been undermined by former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's decision to transfer nutrition policy away from the Food Standards Agency to the Department of Health and sign up to a Public Health Responsibility Deal with the industry.

"He put the food industry in charge of public health," said Prof MacGregor. "He actually made the food industry responsible for policing themselves. It's unbelievable. I have had many meetings with him and shouted at him, but he was absolutely impossible to persuade.

"We have a ridiculous system now where nothing is happening to improve the food supply because of Andrew Lansley."

Dr Paul Darragh, a member of the British Medical Association's board of science, said that rules need to be tightened on advertising of unhealthy food and drinks not only on TV but also on internet sites, within online games played by children, and in sponsorship of school activities and sports.

He voiced concerns about adverts for unhealthy foods involving sporting stars like Gary Lineker and Pele, telling the committee: "The way some sportsmen - a prominent footballer and some crisps, or even Subway and a Brazilian footballer - the way they sponsor unhealthy foods, we need to look at that."

And Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator of the Children's Food Campaign, said that a ban on TV ads for unhealthy products during children's programming should also cover family shows like X Factor and Britain's Got Talent.

"With shows like X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, children can be seeing up to six less healthy food adverts per hour," he told the committee. "It's about closing that loophole and saying nine o'clock should be the watershed."

Prof MacGregor said: "We need to ban all advertising of all unhealthy foods. Inevitably, in the next 10 years, there will be a ban on advertising, which will slowly come in worldwide. The question is, is the UK going to lead the world, as it did with salt, or is it going to lag behind?"

But he warned: "You have to realise that the food industry globally is the most powerful industry there is - much bigger than defence now - and they exert huge power and they put a lot of money into funding political parties all over the world in order to get their way.

"We need to stand up to them. We shouldn't be allowing them to kill us off like this. They can make healthy food, make the same profits, without killing us."

Mr Clark said a sugar tax could cost an average of 10p per person per week, but the benefits would be felt most by disadvantaged households which suffered most from the health impact of poor diets.

Prof MacGregor said that most countries with a sugar tax had introduced it at a low level before raising it once it had been accepted by the public: "Like alcohol and cigarettes, once you've started it, you gradually screw it up, so it becomes like cigarettes where it's now an 800% tax on them but we're quite happy about that."

Ian Wright, the director general of industry body the Food and Drink Federation, warned that a sugar tax would "undoubtedly" cost producers of branded products money and hit jobs, while consumers might simply switch to cheaper unbranded products with similar levels of sugar.

He cited an unnamed company which he said had switched a £40 million investment from the UK to Nigeria after suggestions a sugar tax might be introduced in Britain.

"I know of several global firms who are very nervous," Mr Wright told the committee. "A lot of branded foods in this country are produced by global companies. They can choose where to put their money, where to create jobs, where to create wealth.

"If the UK becomes a less attractive place to invest than elsewhere, that will be a significant result of the imposition of regulation, and that has to be balanced against the health outcomes, if there are any."

Mr Wright said there was "outrage" among food producers about being "demonised" by food health campaigners.

"We have absolutely no interest in unhealthy consumers because unhealthy consumers are not economically active and will not have the money to buy the products we sell," he said. "All of my members are responsible companies led by people with families like anyone else.

"At the appropriate point as an industry, I am sure we will be coming forward with commitments on calorie reduction, further commitments on portion size and we will be looking at how we can contribute to education and behavioural change.

"I think the key issue here is behavioural change amongst consumers and shoppers."

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: "We want an effective obesity strategy that delivers real change ... That means things like reformulation and labelling healthy choices and a greater focus on sugar.

"Any effective obesity strategy needs all partners to be playing their part - as well as retailers - and also an acceptance that voluntary initiatives are not always the best way forward."

He said retailers were "neutral" on a sugar tax, but would want to be convinced that any levy was effective, proportionate and well-targeted.

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